3-Step Solution to Opportunistic Hiring

Whether we look at hiring as adding to payroll or as capability building, it is a decision that merits a thoughtful approach. Taken too far, of course, we may miss opportunities by overthinking, discounting what our intuition tells us, and paralyzing timely action. 

In this article, I propose a bolder and more pragmatic approach to dealing with this paradox. It strikes a balance in the direction of decisive, intelligent, and timely action. It is particularly relevant for the more opportunistic hiring situations that we wish we could handle better.

Picking up the Pace

If the admonition, "trust your gut," sounds reckless, be assured that I do not advise impulsive hiring. We all know that one of the toughest problems, especially at the executive level, can be undoing bad hiring decisions. What I do wish to promote is a good-enough dose of vigilance with a bias for timely action.

In today’s fast-paced world of commerce, high-impact hiring must be more opportunistic. Sometimes serendipity presents talent that we had not planned to hire, but there she is, someone who could really make a difference. 

In the moment, we may understandably feel torn. On the one hand, it may seem too early, or maybe we are in the throes of evaluating a faltering incumbent. Budgetary concerns, fears of failure, and a heightened sense of caution restrain us, perhaps with good reason.

On the other hand, there is something that drives our attraction to this candidate. Is it desperation, a case of the grass looking greener on the other side of the fence? Maybe, but still we ask, "Can we really afford to pass up this opportunity?" Sometimes at least, I think the answer is no. 

Yes, hiring decisions are consequential. Good ones can save our bacon. Bad ones are not easily undone. They can inflict high costs on an organization. I know. I and my colleagues have consulted on hundreds of key management hires, and usually as the ones urging thoughtfulness and restraint.

However, in today's business climate, it is critical that we be prepared to act swiftly and effectively to seize hiring opportunities. Acting on this belief, we've worked increasingly to streamline traditional hiring and onboarding processes. Here’s a minimalist, three-step solution for opportunistic hires:

  • Trust your gut and verify what it is telling you. What makes the candidate so attractive, so compelling? 
  • Moving quickly on new hires implies a need for superior discipline in onboarding practices - for new hires and those upon whom they depend. 
  • Get an objective assessment of the "x factor." Attitude, motivation, and adaptive potential may not be something you are an expert at evaluating.

Trusting Your Gut

Think for a moment. What is it that excites you about the candidate? There may be a number of qualities that catch your attention, but what is it that ultimately sparks your interest? There’s something about her. You could picture her getting the job done. She could really make a difference. She offers something you need to push the ball over the finish line. You can feel it!

We should take these positive impressions of a candidate seriously, especially those impressions that register at 7 or 8 on the Richter Scale. These are data to heed. They may be informed by an implicit awareness of a critical gap. Or perhaps what you see in this person awakens you to the gap!

If that is so, then what should we do with these intuitive data? Considered judgment is necessary, but it must be timely and pragmatic. You might begin by asking, "How might this person make a difference now, in the near-term? How would she accelerate or enhance performance on a current business initiative?" Your answers generate working hypotheses.

These hypotheses serve three purposes: 1) they cause us to clarify our thinking about possible cause-effect relationships; 2) they set the stage for validating our assumptions, testing our impressions, thereby counteracting biases, mental laziness, or wishful thinking; 3) they force us to verbalize our appraisals and make it easier to include others in the deliberations.

A hypothesis should be stated in plain business language: "She would create this or that positive impact on performance (quality of thinking, practical savvy, energy, motivation, skill, or experience)." These are factors we believe will reliably generate positive results. 

Validating the hypothesis requires that we answer these questions in the selection process: "Why do we think that is so? Where are the indicators? If we are right about that cause-effect relationship, why is it that we believe it will be the difference-maker?" We must look for evidence to support our appraisal.

Here’s the logic: First, treat your impressions as data, especially those that concern what is currently missing. Second, specify what it is that the candidate offers that promises to close the gap. Third, patiently coax forth a verbalization of these impressions, treating your propositions as a working hypotheses to be tested and validated in the selection process.

How do you test your hypotheses? Use everything in your tool box: 1) in-depth interviews; 2) real-world, case-based problem solving scenarios; 3) insights from highly trusted people in your professional network; 4) background data from the search consultant; 5) available evidence of success in the public domain; 6) in-depth professional assessment; and 7) reference-checking.[1]


The key to making this accelerated three-step process work is the personal involvement of the hiring executive. His or her engagement from beginning to end must demonstrate wisdom, prudence, and an appropriate bias for action - not an easy balancing act to pull off!

Wisdom and prudence temper any rash tendencies to be dismissive of critical process steps that are well-reasoned and add value. An appropriate bias for action is one that challenges business-as-usual assumptions that do not fit the situation and times. 

This three-step process aims to constructively channel the understandable managerial urgency to improve performance, which too often results in unnecessarily high failure rates in hiring. 

In a follow-up blog, we'll address the importance of an objective candidate assessment and the role of management in onboarding.

For more information:

[1] See our Get It Right solution as a means of maximizing your success rate in planned hiring.